Main cast: Russell Crowe (Maximus), Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Oliver Reed (Proximo), David Schofield (Senator Falco), and Richard Harris (Marcus Aurelius)
Director: Ridley Scott
Bravo! Ridley Scott has returned to top form with this wonderfully heroic epic Gladiator. Okay, so the story isn’t anything fabulous, but this one is a (very expensive) cinematic spectacle as well as an amazing story of courage, strength, and will.
This story is basic. Maximus is one of Rome’s most powerful and popular generals. As one character put it succinctly, “You control the mob, you control Rome.” And Maximus, with his men willing to die for him, is a very powerful man. Yet all he wants is to return home after the battle of Germania to his wife, son, and a life of simple farming. “Dirt cleans off a lot easier than blood,” he tells his emperor Marcus Aurelius.
When Marcus decides to reform Rome into a republic after his death, he entrusts a reluctant Maximus to be the protector of his will. The Emperor’s son Commodus, however, murders his father and sentences Maximus to die. Maximus escapes, returns to his home only to find his wife and son burnt to death. He ends up captured and sold to Proximo (great final performance, Oliver Reed), and soon finds himself a gladiator in the Colosseum.
The CGI is breathtaking, as is the painstaking effort made to recreate the claustrophobia and air of reckless debauchery that is Ancient Rome. One has to see it to believe it and go “Wow.”
But who cares about CGI. Me, I want depth in my characters, and I have it in spades. Maximus is a wonderful man, played with great earnestness by Russell Crowe. He resonates trustworthiness, strength, and nobility that it is so easy to see why people trust him. I would trust this good, noble man with my life should circumstances need it. Maximus is wonderful, and his simple wishes in life makes him even more a hero to root for. His strength and courage in this movie breathe life to the triteness of the two human virtues in face of my cynicism. Maximus is a throwback of a time when men are proud and upright, a time when I still believe in chivalry and dreams. Ah, the bliss of nostalgia.
And the villain Commodus is the perfect foil for Maximus. A weak, snivelling man who lusts after his own sister, Commodus is played with surprising depths by Joaquin Phoenix. He is human, and he murdering his own father and committing various heinous crimes stem not from malice, but from his own weakness. “I have my own virtues, which you overlook,” he tells his father tearfully when the latter tells him that he would never be Emperor. Enraged that it was always Maximus who was the strong one, always Maximus who was loved, he snaps.
“Sometimes I feel as if life is just a bad dream,” he tells his sister, and I get the feeling that he, too, is tormented. Too weak to save himself, he clings to his sister as the sole source of purity in this world. And when she betrays him, he really is lost.
And Lucilla, Maximus’s old flame and sister to Commodus, holds her own among the boys. Here is a woman who is forced to play the games of deception and be strong to protect her son, the heir. “Was I so different then?” she asks Maximus in one touching scene, to which he replies, “You smiled more.” This brief scene tells of a woman who has to sacrifice every inch of her human instincts to survive. Yet she still maintains her conscience and the impetus to do what is right. This is a strong heroine.
I would never forget the scene where Commodus confronts her about her betrayal. Tears roll down both their cheeks, and their voices break. Faced with her betrayal, Commodus is dying inside as much as he is furious. Here are two siblings who love each other, in their own perverse way, and somehow over the years have formed a symbiotic relationship where one can’t live without the other. A fascinating relationship indeed.
From wild, graphic violence that pumps the adrenaline in one’s veins to the final climatic triumph of Maximus, here is one movie which succeeds in bringing back old-fashioned heroes and strong heroines onto the big screen. It makes me cry tears as well as to cheer for the hero. Among the cynical, jaded themes of many movies out nowadays, Gladiator is thus an event to celebrate.
You’ve done well, Maximus. Welcome home at last.